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Ford City prank may lead to felony charges

Sunday, December 14, 2003

By Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

FORD CITY, Pa. -- What started out as a drunken prank Thanksgiving morning could leave eight young adults from Armstrong County with felony records.

The group of 21- and 22-year-olds had been drinking at the Wick City Saloon in Kittanning when someone suggested a prank involving the John B. Ford statue in nearby Ford City.

Several ideas were tossed around. A couple of people talked about taking the 800-pound statue and dumping it in front of Kittanning High School. Others suggested throwing it into the Allegheny River. Some wanted to have their pictures taken with it by their cars.

And some even talked about cutting the head off the 112-year-old landmark.

According to police, the seven men and one woman piled into at least two cars and made the 10-minute trip to Ford City Borough Park.

When they arrived, they tried to use a rope from the flagpole behind the bronze statue to pull it down. When that didn't work, two of them started shaking the statue and rocked it over.

What happened between the time they knocked the statue off its pedestal after 2:30 a.m. and when police arrived about 4 a.m. is unclear, but the damage to the statue is not.

What 3,000 Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. employees each spent a day's wages on in 1891 to honor the city's founder had an 11-inch crack in its coat and scrapes on its legs.

But most appalling to the 3,800 residents here are three cuts through its neck, apparently made with a reciprocating saw, measuring 2 1/2 inches, 4 inches and almost 14 inches long.

Someone had sawed almost three-quarters of the way through John B. Ford's neck.

Mayor Jeff Pyle grumbled when asked last week about the vandalism to the statue.

"It's a sore spot, obviously," Pyle said. "For now, we'd kind of like it to go away."

One of the main problems, he said, is that the people involved come from good families in Ford City. The suspects are Brian Altman, Abraham Abranovic and Stephanie Stitt of Kittanning, and Ford City residents Daniel Jageman, Ryan Simmons, Stephen Smolen, Ryan Morda and Anthony Vergari.

One of the suspects and two parents contacted last week would not comment. The others could not be reached.

"They're still living here and still are very contributory to the community," Pyle said of the suspects' parents. "These are nice people whose kids screwed up."

The parents have taken a lot of heat over it, he added.

Each of the eight is charged with attempted theft and attempting to receive stolen property. Preliminary hearings in the case are scheduled for Thursday in Ford City.

The statue is valued at $80,000. Authorities will wait until repair costs have been estimated before deciding whether the charges amount to felonies or misdemeanors. Also damaged in the prank were the wrought iron fence surrounding the statue and the sidewalk where the bronze mammoth landed.

The people of Ford City have split feelings about the desecration of the statue.

They're angry that a group of people would have so little respect for an important monument in their community, but they don't want them to have felony records over it, either.

"You put a felony on somebody, and that sticks with them for the rest of their lives," Pyle said. "And that's a heck of an anchor to put around their necks."

But, in the same breath, he continued: "It was a Ford City symbol. It's the only such thing we have."

If Ford City has an icon, Pyle said, it's the statue of John B. Ford, lovingly referred to as "The Captain."

The statue was unveiled on a Saturday afternoon in 1891, with many of Ford's employees from Pittsburgh Plate Glass in attendance.

In addition to three plants -- others were in Tarentum and Creighton -- the multimillionaire owned a fleet of boats. He used them to bring many of his employees from the other factories up the Allegheny River so they could attend the celebration that day at Ford City Borough Park.

The pedestal that now sits empty in the park reads: "Erected in honor of John B. Ford, the father of the plate glass industry in America by three thousand employees on the eightieth anniversary of his birth, Nov. 17, 1891."

Those employees, who earned about $12 a week, donated an entire day's pay to have the statue commissioned, said John Englert, a historian and former mayor of Ford City.

"They loved him so much," said Englert, 72. "And that was unusual."

At the time, Ford allowed PPG, founded in 1887, to be a union shop.

Englert's grandfather was one of the men who gave his money toward the statue. And when Englert was young, his grandfather took him to the park to see John B. Ford's statue and learn about his past.

"He instilled sort of a devotion to that statue," Englert said. "To me, it means an awful lot."

He called the damage to the statue a "doggone shame."

"How long does a person have to wait until he grows up?" Englert asked.

In an affidavit of probable cause, Ford City police said all eight suspects admitted their involvement, though they all deny attempting to cut off the statue's head.

Pyle has gotten dozens of phone calls on the subject.

"They're pretty consistent," he said. "There really isn't anybody that wants to crucify them. But we want everything fixed. We want community service because it's not cool what they did."

Englert agrees that would be the best punishment in the case.

"If you fine them, the parents are just going to pay the fines," he said, but he added, "That felony record shouldn't be put on them."

He'd like to see restitution and for the accused to do heavy work for the Ford City street department.

Heather Heckman, a co-owner of Fox's Pizza Den in Ford City, recognizes the celebrated history of the statue.

"We can't go forward unless we fall back on our history," she said.

She suggests physical labor around the park on a very hot or very cold day as community service for the pranksters.

"Sticking them in jail for a little bit, nah, that's just going to give them a bad attitude," she said.

She does believe, though, that the law that protects such venerated monuments as Ford's statue should be strongly enforced.

Pyle, a government teacher at Ford City High School, said he taught five of the eight suspects. He was shocked when he heard what they were accused of.

Since the incident, the statue's story has been the subject of several local newspaper stories and even prompted a morning session on radio station Y-108 of what the dumbest thing listeners ever did when they were drunk, Pyle said.

"We'd kind of like this thing to resolve peacefully, without a lot of hullabaloo," he said.

Paula Reed Ward can be reached .

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